Beginner’s Guide to Growing Lavender and Using Lavender

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Photo By Christian Jung/Fotolia
Growing lavender not only can create sweeps of intense fragrance and drifts of soft color but also ensures an abundance of flowers at harvest time.

By itself, a lavender plant doesn’t look like much. Its foliage is skimpy and gray, its flower stalks lanky, its growth habit unremarkable. The flowers themselves, at least on the common English varieties, are so understated that you have to watch closely to see when buds become blooms.

But stand among a host of lavenders on a sunny day in June and let yourself be transported. Breathe deeply and envision purple fields in Provence, a cottage garden in the Cotswolds, cupboards stacked with fragrant sun-dried linens. Lavender’s penetrating, clean fragrance can make any crusty old gardener think sweet thoughts.

The pleasures of a garden full of lavender transcend its scent. Though a single specimen is generally unprepossessing, in numbers lavender becomes a versatile, dependable, ornamental landscape element in all but the most severe or soggy climates.

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Its smudgy gray-green and gray-lavender foliage can serve as a foil for brighter, showy flowers or complement soft pastels. Its upright growth habit can provide a backdrop for lower-growing plants, its bushy form lend fullness and contour to the middle border. And with flower colors ranging from deep violets and gentle mauves to baby blues, pinks, and white, foliage smooth or hairy, linear or fernlike, monochrome or variegated, and height from less than a foot to 4 feet tall or more, an entire garden of lavenders is an enchanting possibility.

Using lavender lavishly in the garden not only can create sweeps of intense fragrance and drifts of soft color but also ensures an abundance of flowers at harvest time for all the other uses lavender lends itself to. We’ll not talk here of perfumes, potpourris, sachets, wands, bouquets, wreaths, soaps, teas, jellies, cosmetics, or baths, though all these applications and more are possible for those who grow an abundance of lavender. Rather, let’s look at how a few gardeners have used this appealing plant without restraint in the landscape.

An Ideal Site for Growing Lavender

In Ithaca, New York, Margaret Fa­brizio looked closely at a huge mound of dirt beside a high school in her neighborhood. It was an eyesore, overgrown with seedling sumacs, black locust, prickly pyracantha shrubs, big ungainly yews, and a tangle of grass and weeds, but in this messy pile she saw hints of a long-abandoned garden. She noticed a stand of lavender that was thriving, renewing itself year after year amid the chaos.

Fabrizio discovered that the lavender, as well as low-growing junipers, myrtle, and potentillas, had been part of a garden planted in the 1960s. In early 1988, she won the support of the school district to reclaim and refurbish this site; the authorities canceled a work order to level the mound. She rallied volunteers among students, teachers, and community members, as well as nurseries and other local businesses. From April through mid-June, they cleared out old trees and bushes with a backhoe, dug out rocks and roots, laid stone paths, and prepared the mound for the garden that Fa­brizio had designed on paper.

Fabrizio and her helpers discovered that the site was ideal for lavender (“like a hilltop in the Mediterranean”): it has full sunlight all day, ­excellent drainage, and gritty, slightly alkaline soil. The nearby school buildings provide some winter protection and radiate heat in the summer. Dozens of different herbs, flowers, and shrubs were planted in large numbers, but what predominates in this garden, at least in early to midsummer, are the massive, flowing, drifting, sweeping stands of lavender, many of them propagated from a mother plant 20 to 30 years old. Fabrizio doesn’t know what kind of lavender this is, but it’s the hardiest she has ever seen. It greens up quickly in the spring, reseeds readily, and apparently has adapted itself over many seasons to this site.

From afar, it looks like a sea of lavender, but the closer one gets, the more interesting the garden becomes. Fabrizio selected the other plants for their ability to thrive in a dry, sunny site and for their long bloom times. Flower colors are cool, with blues, purples, mauves, and pinks predominating and other colors adding accents. The diversity of the plantings ensures flowers from March through November.

Masses of pink roses, geraniums, salvias, Russian sage, and false indigo (Baptisia australis) repeat throughout the garden, drawing the eye to make connections among the contrasts. The lime green of lady’s-mantle spreads generously through the color scheme, and mounds of santolina and Powis Castle artemisia add their soft shapes. Many other herbs and flowers appear as specimens or small plantings, playing up or playing off the lavender in appealing juxtapositions.

Nearly six years after Fabrizio started this project, her mound of dirt has become a splashy garden that is a source of community pride.

Faithful Flowers for Bees

In downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, one garden catches the attention of every passing lavender lover. It surrounds the stately Beehive House, built as Brigham Young’s official residence in 1854, where he lived while governing the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.

Peter Lassig, head gardener, has been tending the grounds at the Beehive House for 37 years, and he created the gardens that surround the house and border the street. When the Mormon leader lived there, until his death in 1877, the grounds were fairly bare and spartan, but Lassig took some liberties and designed a classic English flower garden border, “which I thought was reasonable because the strength of the LDS church in that period of time came from the English converts who were pouring into the Wasatch Mountains,” he says, as if he had to justify this beautiful garden.

English lavender, planted in 1969, accounts for only a small fraction of the garden’s specimens, but it is compelling and visually dominant. It forms an undulating hedge that borders a tidy wrought-iron fence and wanders through stands of hollyhocks and daylilies. The lavender hedge paints an impressionistic background to the old-fashioned snapdragons, cosmos, cleome, petunias, daisies, zinnias, and geraniums. Tucked among the flowers are native plants gathered from the nearby mountains, culinary herbs, even rhubarb. The plantings reflect Lassig’s unusual eye for garden combinations, his passion and patience, even his sense of humor.

Some of his favorite companions for the lavender are Campanula garganica (“The campanula is splashing up against the lavender in a very emotional way, the way frothy water does along the rocks,” he says), Dragon’s Blood sedum, and Sundance coreopsis, which tosses its yellow blossoms in the air in pleasing contrast to the lavender, which flowers at the same time. He likes the way lavender looks with valerian (“some people would call this heresy”), its dusty rose flowers up against the dusty blue of the lavender. “King Henry is an excellent viola to place at the base of lavender because it’s purple, very tiny, and because it sounds a cute little grunty bass note,” Lassig advises.

Even when the lavenders aren’t in bloom, they are still softly green and shapely. “Lavenders are faithful,” Lassig says. “They’re enduring, they’re dependable. They never have an off-season. If lavender fails in the garden, the failure is due to the person who didn’t nest it to its proper ecological and aesthetic niche.”

The profusion of lavender in the Beehive House gardens ensures that summer visitors are likely to be greeted by the hum of the bees drawn to its flowers.

The No-Fuss Lavender Hill

Near Hollywood, California, Carole Saville has a lavender hill. Her house sits at the top of a ridge, with the land behind it dropping off steeply, and she has created a lavender landscape on the slope. In other garden beds, she keeps 14 varieties of lavender trimmed and tidy, but on this dry and sunny incline, she lets the lavenders go, wild and exuberant and bountiful.

Eight years ago, the hillside was littered with broken concrete, which Sa­ville, with some help, rearranged to form the walls of three 15-foot-long beds that step up the hill. She then planted gallon-sized English lavender plants about every 3 feet, hoping they would grow fast and disguise the concrete. She placed the tallest varieties at the top of the ridge, rising up the skyline, and tucked smaller ones down below.

“Sometimes I even forget the lavender’s down there, and it just grows and grows and grows,” Saville says. The lavenders demand little attention, but she does water the beds regularly, and if a plant starts to look scraggly and lose its shape, she prunes it hard. Planting those first English lavenders started her down the path of collecting lavenders, and the no-fuss lavender hill has become a trial bed for new varieties.

Over the years, Saville has added other herbs that complement the lavenders. Rosemary and lavender are a classic combination; Saville especially likes the play of lavender against Tuscan Blue and Majorca Pink rosemaries. A large juniper shrub is another comfortable companion to the lavender, as are a collection of salvias. Salvia cacaliaefolia, with its gentian blue flowers, and Lavandula stoechas ‘Atlas’, whose large flower spikes look like “miniature royal purple hand gre­nades”, are a smashing combination.

Lavender and red roses blooming together are marvelous when a gardener can find compatible species. Hybrid tea roses generally demand more watering and feeding than lavender, but some of the old roses and multiflora roses work well. Saville has an unidentified red miniature rose bush that’s a perfect fit. After the rose has finished flowering, the lavender foliage continues to add interest and shapeliness.

Casual & Charming Raised Beds

In Wilsonville, Oregon, lavenders are a prominent feature of the display gardens at Christine and Ed Mulder’s Barn Owl Nursery. Because they are one of Christine’s main interests and a specialty of the nursery, she needed a way to show customers how different lavenders look growing in the landscape. With about 35 varieties, it’s easier for her to point than to explain.

The result is a lovely area where lavenders reign supreme. About 18 feet long and 12 feet wide, the raised bed is an oblong peninsula that juts out from a hedge of carefully pruned Douglas firs. Edged with redwood boards that bend around the curves, it mounds up slightly in the center. A smooth gravel path, about 31/2 feet wide, leads visitors into the interior of the display gardens, and as one rounds a corner, the lavender bed comes into view. The path separates it from a bed of herbs and flowers used in making potpourris. A spectacular sight in early summer is the blooming hedges of English lavender on either side of this fragrant walkway: Hidcote with its deep violet flowers edging the lavender bed and pink-flowering Jean Davis lavender on the side that fronts the potpourri garden. They are two of Christine Mulder’s favorites in the garden as well as for use in potpourris and for drying on the stem. Seen from a distance, the lavender hedges in flower are an eye-catching landscape feature.

Other lavender varieties are used in quantity for hedges in other sections of the display gardens. In the lavender bed, Mulder has planted only one specimen of each, with the tallest specimens toward the center. She even plants some of the tender cultivars that she expects to lose if the winter is severe. The bed changes from week to week, with new species coming into flower as others finish blooming. There are lavenders still blooming in late October.

The lavenders in the bed are interplanted with blue- and white-flowering perennials and annuals: several kinds of nepetas (Six Hills Giant catmint is a favorite), some upright rosemaries, bachelor’s-buttons, dwarf candytuft, Russian sage, veronicas, and a white carpet of alyssum. It is a casual and charming mix of flowers and foliage.

Making an Impact

Lavender has long been a mainstay of English gardens, from flower borders at elegant manors to informal cottage gardens in delightful disarray. The classic garden designer Gertrude Jekyll used it generously in nearly every border and bed she shaped. (L. angustifolia ‘Munstead’ was named for Munstead Wood, her home in Surrey, England.) She used it in combinations, such as lavender and rosemary, that have never gone out of fashion on either side of the Atlantic.

Today’s herb gardeners cherish lavender as well, and it’s unlikely ever to fall from favor. In large gardens in hospitable climates, massed lavender can be a unifying force, providing rhythm and continuity with its free-form drifts of purple flowers and sturdy foliage that is attractive through the seasons. Even the smallest yard offers the chance to pair up lavender with other herbs and flowers and to discover some wonderful combinations. Gardeners who know lavender only as an isolated clump haven’t yet discovered its potential.

How to Grow Lavender

Lavandula, a member of the mint family (Labiatae or Lamiaceae), is native to the Mediterranean region but is cultivated in many other parts of the world. The lavender grown commercially for its fragrant oil comes mainly from Europe, particularly England and France, where lavender fields and farms spread over thousands of acres. The most useful kinds of lavender for home landscapers are the English lavenders (L. angustifolia) and the lavandins (L. x intermedia), as well as their numerous cultivars. (Lavandins are sterile hybrids of L. angustifolia and the tender spike lavender, L. spica.) These forms are also valued by commercial growers for the quality of their essential oils. English lavenders and lavandins are hardy to Zone 5, and the lavandins can thrive as far south as Florida, where L. angustifolia languishes. Here are some guidelines for providing a comfortable spot in the garden for lavenders.

Full sun is a prerequisite for the most productive lavender cultivation, although there are reports of lavender growing successfully with as little as four hours of sun a day.

A neutral to slightly alkaline soil is optimal. Lavenders are more particular about soil acidity than many other herbs, but they grow well in soils of pH 6.4 to 8.2. If you suspect that your soil is very acidic, have a soil test done and add lime as necessary.

Excellent drainage is crucial. Adding humus in the form of peat moss, manure, or compost will improve the drainage of both sticky clay and sandy soil. Raised beds or mounds will keep root systems out of soggy soil. Lavenders are good candidates for rock gardens.

Good air circulation around the plants will minimize the fungus diseases that attack lavender in humid climates. Space the plants 2 to 3 feet apart and avoid jamming them close to other perennials or structures. Clear dead leaves and debris away from the base of the plants and remove low-growing branches in midsummer to improve air circulation. Thinning out dense bushes is also beneficial.

Avoid dark mulches, particularly in hot and humid climates. Wood chips and sawdust tend to harbor fungus diseases. Arthur O. Tucker, a research professor at Delaware State College, places 1 to 2 inches of sterile white sand atop the soil to reflect light and heat back into the interior of the plant where fungus diseases start; he has found that the sand mulch substantially boosts flower production.

Sufficient water is particularly important in the first season after planting. Once established, lavenders are generally fairly drought-tolerant, but inadequate water may discourage the new growth necessary for a second flowering in recurrent-blooming varieties. The optimum amount of water is 33 inches a year, but lavenders can survive with as little as 12 inches a year.

Prune old wood hard in spring to stimulate new growth; snip back unruly branches during the summer to keep it shapely. Pruning late in summer in cold climates is likely to stimulate new growth that will winter-kill. If a plant becomes woody and untidy with age, consider replacing it with a young plant. You can propagate your own replacements fairly easily by layering low-growing branches. Pin a branch to the ground and cover the spot with a little mound of soil. Check back after a month or so to see whether new roots have formed, but defer cutting off and transplanting the new plant until the next spring.

England and France, both known for their fine lavender crops, have radically different climates. As Tucker explains, “Hardy lavenders tolerate cold moisture and dry heat. In England, it’s cool and moist; in France, it’s dry and hot. The ideal is wet winters with dry summers. The problem, as in the southeastern United States, is summer moisture. That’s the worst possible situation for trying to grow lavenders.” Texas herb growers Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay recommend the tender species L. dentata and L. stoechas as good choices for the humid South; L. angustifolia can be grown successfully in the drier parts of Texas.

Even if you have an inhospitable climate for lavender, don’t give up. Amend your soil, find a good airy, sunny spot, and if you’ve found lavender growing to be tricky, experiment to find a variety that’s suited to your garden. There are, fortunately, lots to choose from.

Further Reading

• French, Jackie. The Book of Lavender. New York: Angus and Robertson, 1993.
• McLeod, Judyth A. Lavender, Sweet Lavender. Kenthurst, Australia: Kangaroo Press, 1989.
• Vickers, Lois. The Scented Lavender Book. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.


The following mail-order nurseries have a wide selection of lavenders.

• Canyon Creek Nursery, 3527 Dry Creek Road, Oroville, CA 95965. Catalog $2.
• Dutch Mill Herb Farm, 6640 NW Marsh Rd., Forest Grove, OR 97116. Lavender list $1.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. Catalog $1.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 North Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321-4598. Catalog free.
• Rasland Farm, Route 1, Box 65C, Godwin, NC 28344. Catalog $2.50.
• Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2.

Kathleen Halloran, associate editor of The Herb Companion, is a lavender lover and an enthusiastic herb gardener in LaPorte, Colorado.

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